English Focus: Metaphors

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When you read any piece of writing, the first thing you will probably try to do is get to grips with the meaning by analysing the sentences and words in a very literal sense. In some cases, this will be all that is required as there is no deeper meaning, for example, when reading instructions on using a new computer. In this situation, the meaning will be very literal so the text won’t be embellished in any way. However, such mechanical writing is less effective when used to create stories or poetry where you want the reader to become emotionally engaged with the piece. To achieve this, it needs greater depth to stir feelings that the reader can relate to. One way of achieving this is to use metaphors and similes.

We’re already discussed similes [link to previous post on similes] in a previous post. They are used to create a link between the situation being described and an alternative, more familiar, image using the phrases ‘as … as’ or ‘like’. This enables the author to bring a scene to life, as demonstrated in the following two sentences.

Simile Example 1: The waterfall was like the sky on a crisp winter’s morning, majestic and graceful.

This seems to suggest that the water is a pale blue and is going to be cold, possibly freezing. You might imagine breathing in on a crisp winter morning, when there is frost on the ground and relate that feeling to what it would be like to jump into the water. This depth of understanding comes from the image created by the simile.

Simile Example 2: The waterfall was like the vibrant wings of a parrot in the Amazonian rain forest

This creates a different feeling than the first. It is likely to make you see the water as having deep and vivid colour with blues, greens or even reds and yellow. You may have images of waterfalls with mist surrounded by lush green vegetation and colourful flowers reflected in the water as a result. In fact the ‘vibrant nature’ of the colour is likely to draw parallels to other colourful images of people and houses as commonly in hot countries. By linking to the rainforest you are likely to imagine a high level of humidity and heat in addition to the feeling that the water will drench you. So this simile defines the waterfall very differently.

Metaphors are similar to similes in that they link two situations or objects, but in a more direct way. Rather than say that the waterfall is similar to something else, a metaphor suggests that the waterfall is something else. It is no longer a comparison, but now the subject of your description takes on the traits of the item it is being likened to.

So ‘the waterfall was like the vibrant wing of a parrot in the Amazonian rain forest’ becomes ‘the waterfall was the vibrant wing of a parrot in the Amazonian rain forest’.

This creates a more powerful and a stronger relation than in the simile. It may evoke a more definite image of the shape, colour and form of the plumage on a parrot’s wing; the form of the feathers being visible in the water as it tumbles over the rocks.

This link between metaphors and similes is a helpful one as it can be used as a method to create a metaphor in your writing. You could take the meaning that you wanted to describe and use a familiar situation to describe it, using a ‘like’ or ‘as … as’ statement. This could then be rewritten as a metaphor, making a more direct but less explained link so the reader has to imagine the story around the image in their own mind.

For example, if you want to describe someone acting childishly in your story, you have two choices. You could just explicitly state that they were acting childishly, or you could use a metaphor. The latter is the preferred method if you want to bring your subject to life, and engage your readers more deeply.

For example, if your statement was ‘he was childish’ you could use a simile to say ‘he acted like a child with a new toy at Christmas’, or you could use a metaphor to get straight to the hear of the comparison, and say ‘he was a child surrounded by shiny toys at Christmas’.

Metaphors are not always obvious, but they are more common than you might think, especially in the English language. In fact, if you think about it, you’ve probably used several today without even realising it.

Have you ever asked anyone ‘could you lend me a hand’? You wouldn’t actually want them to lend you one of their hands, but it is widely understood that what you are actually asking for is help.

Can you think of any other metaphors that we all use everyday? Type them into the comments box below and we’ll see which ones are most popular.